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Jordan Randall Smith

www.jordanrsmith.com
@jordanconductor

Performance Design: Repositioning


Interpretation as One of Several Tools in
Preparing for Total Musical Performance
Jordan Randall Smith

Interpretation is a commonly understood term among musicians, a term denoting the

“stylistic representation of a creative work,” (Stevenson 2010)1. However, interpretation is

often wrongly believed to be a self-consistent and complete toolset for preparing the score for

performance. Rather than merely augment the accepted definition of interpretation, I argue

that a new term must be used to represent the superset of tools valuable to the performer, of

which the traditional methods of interpretation are a subset. I argue for the use of the term

Performance Design (PD) to indicate the totality of means and methods by which live concert

performances are planned and prepared. Included in these means are tools from Neuroscience,

Information Theory, and other audience-centric disciplines.

Traditional 20th-century post modernist historicist notion of interpretation relies on the

notions of so-called “authenticity”2 and of strict adherence to the wishes of a composer. These

1
(Stevenson 2010)
2
(Taruskin 1982, p. 342)
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ideas rightly react against the worst excesses of an era3 in which conductors routinely edited

the text of a score, trimming so-called “excess” measures and passages, augmenting the

orchestration, and frequently adding excessive portamenti to leaps in the strings. This practice

is widely panned as a general rule today, though its status as an accepted cultural practice

dates before the advent of the LP, with Gustav Mahler’s own retouching of Schumann,

Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The well-documented view of composers such as Schoenberg,

Ravel, Stravinsky, and Britten was that they did not want their music to be “interpreted” - Ravel

saying “Il ne faut pas interpreter ma musique, il faut le réaliser.”4 Similar comments by many

composers repositioned the autograph as the final and complete word on how their music

should be performed.

Within present musico-cultural norms (here referring to western classical music culture

unless stated otherwise), it is acceptable and appropriate for a composer to adopt this or any

other orientation on the range from near-total organization (as found in Stockhausen) to near-

total chaos (as found in Cage). However, an unintended consequence of this position is an often

ahistorical approach to performance of music of eras in which composers did not see their own

music in such rigid terms.5 Schuller is perhaps the most outspoken exponent of this particular

view and its best defender. “Given human fallibility and variability, absolute perfection is

probably not achievable. But it is certainly the goal that conductors must strive for—in order to

3
(Botstein 1997, p. 7)
4
(Schuller 1997, Kindle Locations 290-292)
5
(Botstein 1997, p. 5)
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have the right to interpret, to realize, the works of the great masters, whose genius is many,

many times greater than their own.”6

This is a concept which Botstein successfully rebuts in equally barbed rejoinder. “It is

nearly incomprehensible that a musician of Schuller’s caliber should be entirely impervious to

the intellectual sea change that has come upon musicians and scholars with respect to how a

score might be read and how music can be and has been understood particularly as an aspect

of history. At stake here is not adherence to fashion but rather the absence of any attempt at

methodological self-criticism.” (Botstein 4) Botstein alludes to a “sea change” that brings in a

much more humanistic pursuit that acknowledges the history of a piece and all of the aspects of

performance that are illuminated. Modern practitioners know this so-called “sea change” as the

Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, first coined in the 1980’s and often traced

in practice to the prominence of recordings of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt with Conscentius

Musicus Wien beginning in the 1960’s (a time when performances might be called “historically

authentic” without irony). HIP brings into PD the notion of accounting not only for precisely

following the notated score as Schuller exclaims, but also the notion of sensitivity to the

performance conditions under which the piece would have been performed. This includes using

instrument designs and ensemble tunings appropriate both to the time and the specific region

or even village in which a composer may have been working.

HIP improved PD considerably and served to directly inform the practice of

interpretation by means of opening up the kinds of interpretive questions regarding

ornamentation that would have previously been answered by blind application of current

6
(Schuller 1997, Kindle Locations 280-282)
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performance trends. It is important to acknowledge that Implicit in the previous statement is

the idea that using original ornamentation instructions is better than doing otherwise. I assert

this to be true though it is beyond the scope of this paper to make a complete argument for

such a statement. This also raises a philosophical question, also beyond the scope of this paper,

regarding the point at which a notation in a given dimension is musically salient or musically

essential to the composer’s wishes.

HIP as a movement has slowly spread its reach from scholar-performers giving strikingly

divergent performances of so-called "early music" (defined here as music prior to Bach and

Händel) to what is now, to varying degrees, a guiding principle for musical study in most parts

of the classical music establishment. As to its precise parameters and obvious limitations much

has been written and debated. However, even those at the poles, Taruskin as perhaps its chief

critic and Zaslaw as perhaps its most well known exponent, find it difficult to argue with a

simplified formulation such as performers, “doing [their] homework”.7

At this point, the limits of interpretation are mostly reached, as the scholar performer

has diligently studied the manuscripts, the various editions, the cultural habits of the time, and

the relevant contemporary documents. They have musically prepared the work scrupulously,

and yet the preparation of a performance is not nearly complete. This is the point where an

enlarged model for PD becomes necessary to fully describe the relationship between composer,

performer, and audience. For such a relationship, a number of additional disciplinary tools must

be appropriated into the performer’s tool belt in order to shape the experience of performance

in an active and conscious way. Undergirding any appropriation is the idea that a performer

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(Zaslaw 1992, p. 195)
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must also investigate the mediation of information from the performer to the listener. There

are many sub-disciplines within the sciences that contribute meaningfully to PD by

investigating music perception, musical semantics, etc. in the same way that musicology,

ethnomusicology, music theory, are among the disciplines that have contributed to HIP.

This particular curated network could be thought of as unified in attentiveness to the

activities of the brain of the hypothetical audience member, and could therefore be

thought of as Neuroscience-Informed Performance (NIP). It is not necessary at present to

develop particular criteria for what fields may or may not be included beyond the broad

definition given. NIP is meant to serve as a flexible container for research across a broad

range of disciplines which contribute meaningfully to the relationship between audience

and performer. This is just as the formulation of HIP in the larger sense Zaslaw described

serves to encompass all those fields which do likewise for the relationship between

composer and performer.

While a relatively young field, the work of Music Perception is easily the front line in

a broadened effort to know the mind of the listener. The performer is able to look at this

research and glean speculation as to what it could mean for how ones music might be

effected. One very simple example is a pair of related laws which have long been

formalized as a matter of psychophysics but remains almost totally unknown to musicians.

Weber’s Law states that the just-noticeable difference between two stimuli is proportional
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Figure 1. Chart Outlining Composer (C), Performer (P), and Audience (A) Relationships

to the magnitude of the stimuli, or, an increment is judged relative to the previous amount.8

Fechner took this one step further with the Fechner Scale, mathematically formalized as:

perceived change in loudness (or brightness) is essentially proportional to log10 .

The knowledge gap about this phenomenon leave performers making choices that may

seem very appealing to them, but are scientifically imperceptible to even a well-trained

human audience. It is the direct application to performance that makes this knowledge gap a

particularly striking appeal to the notion of NIP within the larger PD. Schuller, who zealously

explores and invents dozens of proposed PD improvements, fails to apply these principles. In

a discussion of dynamic levels as notated by Tchaikovsky, he does rightly note first that

instruments have finite decibel limitations and that a Tchaikovsky marking of pppppp is no

8
(Pinker 2011, p. 265)
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different than a Beethoven marking of pop, it is instead Tchaikovsky’s wish to increase the

number of subtle dynamic shadings over a range mod12 rather than Beethoven’s mod8.

Figure 2. Schuller Dynamic Range Scale (1-1000)9

It is all the more disconcerting as his design seems so well-wraught, it could easily appear to

the uncritical reader that it is based on actionable data. While it is perhaps a useful scale just

as a way to visualize the basic relationships between a mod12 and mod8 dynamic range, it is

almost irredeemably problematic in much the same way that a chord sheet detailing pitch

cent adjustments for chords of just intonation is almost insurmountably distant from a

workable knowledge base for keeping an orchestra sounding in tune. To stay just with the

problems of this chart, it neglects to discuss consider the dynamic dispositions of different

9
(Schuller 1997, Kindle Location 10069)
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instruments, it uses an abstract scale rather than decibel volume, and it fails to acknowledge

the Fechner Scale.

Most strikingly, the Fechner scale shows that for a given set of dynamic shades, it is

almost a certainty that many shifts in absolute volume would result in an incorrect

perception of shift. For instance, The Fechner Scale accurately predicts that a geometric

increase of intensity (multiplying by a fixed factor, in this case 3), is perceived in an

arithmetic progression (adding constant amounts). This process would show that Schuller’s

ppppp (a value 91), if tripled (to a value of 273), would result in one observable dynamic shift

to the audience, and if tripled again (to 819) would result in just one additional perceivable

shift. This is highly disappointing as the audience would seemed to have heard only two

dynamic shifts when in fact 9 of Tchaikovsky’s mod12 dynamic levels were traversed.

Fortunately, the story of dynamics is as complex as it is and as such allows for a wealth of

other intents and purposes beyond the brute, quantized shifts which Schuller and many

others might advocate for.

It is important to note that the criticism being given is not directed at Schuller’s, or

other performers’ efforts to bring a heightened intellectual rigor to PD per se, rather that it

belies as an all but nascent pursuit of which it is one of the only examples. Instead,

performers who write books tend to fill them with anecdotes about working with other great

artists, and other highly intuitive claims with no supporting basis in research. It may indeed

be true that large portions of the claims made by culturally significant performers are

accurate, but we do not yet have purchase on a way to prove many of their claims at present.

Schuller is merely an easy target for such a critique precisely because he went to greater
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lengths than most any other performer to ground his claims in something measurable, even

if his was merely an abstract scale. In fact, as to proving intuitive claims, the Fechner scale

does serve to scientifically confirm one particularly long-lived and widespread musical

practice: the geometric crescendo.

Figure 3. Schuller Geometric Crescendo10

The basic shape of this crescendo seems to imply that there is some intuitive cultural

knowledge stored in the commonly practiced of the preference to “save a crescendo” to the end of its

prescribed growth. This would essentially give the audience a sense of an arithmetic increase.

Meanwhile a perfectly structured arithmetic (straight line) crescendo would likely be perceived as the

inverse growth growth curve. There are many other avenues to pursue which not only point to truths

about musical perception, but point directly at actionable data usable by a performer in the process of

PD and the Fechner Scale is but one particularly low-hanging piece of fruit.

One additional avenue is using Information Theory to augment the performer’s understanding

of both the relationship with the audience and with the composer. The fundamental concepts of

Information Theory “have a great intuitive appeal”11 with applications across many disciplines

including music. On the audience side, there is the problem of determination of the “sequence of

perceptions in the mind of a listener, measured inferentially by psychology.” Cohen explains a set of

problems of relationships between culturally significant signs and audience perceptions of which the

10
(Schuller 1997, Kindle Location 852)
11
(Cohen 2007, p. 137)
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above Tchaikovsky dynamics problem (as applied to the Fechner Scale) is one well-formed example.

Information Theory relies heavily with the concept of entropy, which measures the minimum

average number of bits required to transmit one culturally significant sound unit. This is where the

concept of compression comes into play. The Fechner scale again serves as an ideal backdrop against

which to illustrate that, rather than measure two discrete absolute dynamic values, the brain

compresses that signal by registering primarily the change between them. One of the chief problems

elucidated by Cohen is the fact that as the perceiver’s alphabet and lexicon of culturally significant

signs and structures change, so must their perceptions of an otherwise “fixed” composition, and thus,

the representation of that composition in the mind of the perceiver. Gregorian chant is a mod7

alphabet, that is, a 7-symbol alphabet, and was heard as such by the performers and congregations

contemporary with their composition. Meanwhile, modern audiences are thoroughly acculturated in a

mod12 alphabet. When calculating some of Information Theory’s principle measures of redundancy,

the amount of redundancy increases greatly, a statistical proof of perception shift across time.12 PD

then becomes the containing concept for these and many other new tools for direct use by

performers as they continue to develop continuity between composer and audience.

12
(Cohen 2007, p. 151)
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Works Cited

Botstein, Leon. "On conducting." The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 11 (1997): 1-12.

Cohen, Joel E. "Information theory and music." Behavioral Science 7, no. 2 (2007): 137-

163.

Farberman, Harold. The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Perspective. New York:

Alfred Music Publishing, 1997.

Meier, Gustav. The Score, the Orchestra, and the Conductor. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2009.

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels Of Our Nature. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Schuller, Gunther. The Compleat Conductor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Stevenson, Lindberg, ed. The New Oxford American Dictionary. 3rd. New York, 2010.

Taruskin, Richard. "On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on

Musicology and Performance." The Journal of Musicology (University of California Press) 1, no.

3 (July 1982): 338-349.

Zaslaw, Neal. "Editorial." Early Music 20, no. 2 (May 1992): 194-196.